Neuronal autophagy as a mediator of life and death: contrasting roles in chronic neurodegenerative and acute neural disorders

Neuroscientist. 2012 Jun;18(3):224-36. doi: 10.1177/1073858411404948. Epub 2011 Apr 27.


Autophagy is a cellular mechanism for degrading proteins and organelles. It was first described as a physiological process essential for cellular health and survival, and this is its role in most cells. However, it can also be a mediator of cell death, either by the triggering of apoptosis or by an independent "autophagic" cell death mechanism. This duality is important in the central nervous system, where the activation of autophagy has recently been shown to be protective in certain chronic neurodegenerative diseases but deleterious in acute neural disorders such as stroke and hypoxic/ischemic injury. The authors here discuss these distinct roles of autophagy in the nervous system with a focus on the role of autophagy in mediating neuronal death. The development of new therapeutic strategies based on the manipulation of autophagy will need to take into account these opposing roles of autophagy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autophagy* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia-Ischemia, Brain / pathology*
  • Hypoxia-Ischemia, Brain / physiopathology
  • Nerve Degeneration / pathology*
  • Nerve Degeneration / physiopathology
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / pathology*
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / physiopathology
  • Stroke / pathology*
  • Stroke / physiopathology